Luke (and five of his mates) have gone to the West End to celebrate the beginning of the holidays by spending his weekly pocket money of pounds 10 on fruit machines.
Every Saturday without fail, 15-year-old Luke makes his appointment with his local fruit machines in Watford and every week he spends all of his paper round earnings - pounds 15 - on one-arm bandits. He admits to winning hardly a penny for all his efforts. With a shrug of the shoulders, Luke dismisses the losses he makes on his favourite pastime. "It's something to do."
According to recent figures, Luke is one of 2 million 12-15-year-olds who spend their pocket money on fruit machines. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 members of that age group have a serious gambling problem. As he sips a soft drink through a straw, Luke says he does not believe that he is addicted to fruit machines, even though he has been playing them since the age of 12. "It's all about having fun," he says with a chubby-faced smile.
Even at the expense of missing school? He gives a knowing smile, and focuses again on the slot machine. Since we started talking, he has put in pounds 2 and has not won a penny.
Such behaviour is familiar to Paul Bellringer who, as a director of the charity Gamcare, offers counselling to young gambling addicts. Since Gamcare set up a help line last October, a total of 12,000 calls has been received from under-25s. Many of the calls are from teenagers. "Teenagers have learnt the power of money and not the responsibility that comes along with it," says Bellringer. He is fearful that today's gambling addicts will be tomorrow's social misfits. "Children who are gamblers are likely to be smokers and drinkers, and enjoy taking risks." These views are supported by the findings of a Mori poll conducted last February for the National Lottery regulator, Oflot. Of about 10,000 12-15-year-olds surveyed in over 100 schools in England and Wales, more than 75 per cent gambled on fruit machines (compared to 47 per cent on National Lottery scratch cards, 40 per cent on the National Lottery draw). Of that 75 per cent, a hard core of 5 per cent are likely to exhibit antisocial behaviour - truancy and stealing from parents - to fund their gambling habit.
Luke insists that he is not part of a hard-core element of gamblers, despite playing truant from school during term-time. And he maintains that there is "nothing wrong with gambling".
His 16-year-old friend Neil agrees. "Playing slot machines is such a buzz. It is the thrill of winning money that makes me want to keep gambling." Neil, who reveals that he has been gambling for four years, confesses to losing pounds 100 a week on fruit machines. He says he funds his habit with money he gets from a "generous grandad and from various people".
The Gaming Board has urged parliament to set an age limit on the country's estimated quarter of a million fruit machines. Tom Kavanagh, secretary of the Gaming Board, says that the 1968 Gaming Act applies to an era when fruit machines were nothing more than "a ball bearing dropped into a hole". The fruit machine that 11-year-old Jeremy Oake and his 14-year-old brother Alastair are playing is a storm of flashing lights and zapping sounds, and they are lured by the potential pounds 4 prize.
Jeremy and Alastair are dilettantes; they have been gambling for only a year, mostly during holiday periods. But Bellringer is concerned that even sporadic gambling can at some point lead to serious addiction - and he blames adults for making it acceptable to kids to do so. "What adults - and teenagers - don't realise is that fruit machines are a low-stake, low-input, high-frequency game that is interactive and can get youngsters easily hooked," says Bellringer. He points out that the deregulation of betting shops in the early Nineties (when high-street bookmakers no longer had to block out their windows) and the National Lottery have both contributed to making gambling acceptable to the young. An estimated pounds 5.5bn is spent every year on the National Lottery, and Bellringer wants the use of fruit machines to be restricted to over-18s.
It is a view shared by the Labour MP Robin Corbett. "Gambling is not a playful, innocent pastime. It can lead to serious addiction."
Corbett says he will raise the issue with the Home Secretary in October to deal with child gambling in poor families. He is particularly concerned with tackling what he calls the "gamble your way out of the ghetto mentality".
But Jeremy and Alastair, who live in the leafy Surrey town of Godalming, scoff at this view. "It isn't about becoming millionaires. It's about the fact that you can win something by putting a little money in," says Alastair, who reluctantly reveals that he habitually puts "a little money in" the machine until he has none left.
Jeremy is unrepentant. "If children want to waste their money, it's up to them how they want to do it."
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